A Life of Picasso Volume III: The Triumphant Years 1917-1932 by John Richardson

    Picasso may have been fiercely superstitious but he was not prone to self-reflection, so he would never have realised just how lucky he was. Pretty much everything in his life worked his way. Surviving to 92 was a basic advantage that few artists had had. So was being in Paris at the moment of western art’s stride into the modern era. Having his pick of so many enticing women was another enviable bonus for this charismatic, relentless, black-eyed satyr of an artist.

    All these blessings served Picasso fully while he lived. What he could not have suspected was that luck would continue to favour him generously after his death, and that he would get as his principal biographer the indefatigable and waspish John Richardson, whose magnificent battle with the master was made public in 1991 with the publication of the opening volume of A Life of Picasso.

    Richardson had known Picasso since the late 1950s, when, as the partner of Douglas Cooper, the snippy Picasso collector and scholar, he found himself on the edges of the flock of seagulls that fluttered hopefully around the south of France in the master’s wake. This familiarity gave Richardson an immediate advantage as a biographer, not because he necessarily knew more than those who had never met Picasso, but because for us readers it seemed to act as an extra guarantee: an amulet of authenticity.

    The size of Richardson’s biography was new, too. The literary world may have had some experience of lives pored over this minutely (volume one took Picasso’s life up to 1906 when he was barely 25, and had not yet invented cubism), but not the world of art. However, by focusing on Picasso’s Spanish origins at such length, this brilliant overture sounded the artist’s keynote so clearly. Volume two kept up the inspired work, and took us through cubism to the first world war. The present volume picks up from there.

    Picasso, aged 36, is in Italy waiting for the first night of the Ballets Russes’ production of Parade: libretto by Cocteau, music by Satie, costumes and sets by him. Dancing with the Ballets Russes is Olga Khokhlova, the mysterious Russian neurotic who was to become the first Mrs Picasso, and about whom most Picasso literature is so snooty. Olga is invariably presented as a chandelier-loving bourgeois who lured Picasso off the true modernist path. And the Parade period is by general consent the least interesting stretch of the master’s career, although the designs he produced for this “gimmicky quasi-modernist ballet” are impossible to judge fairly, as the original sets and costumes have either disappeared or faded to ghostliness.

    The opulent years in Olga’s company, when Picasso embarked upon a busy round of fancy-dress balls and summer hops to the south of France, have come to be known as the era of the duchesses. To the dismay and puzzlement of his progressive friends, Picasso took up figurative art again, as well as duchesses, and the entire period is usually presented as a betrayal. Typically, Richardson swats away most of these received ideas.

    Although not even he is able to make great art out of Picasso’s theatre work, he is more successful with the king-sized classical goddesses slumped like basking seals around the surprising paintings of the time. Instead of seeing them as a sellout, or a diminishment, Richardson argues that we should recognise them as a continuation of Picasso’s search for what has already been described in previous volumes as “the sacred fire” – the talismanic magic that Picasso was forever trying to steal from other artists and eras. Thus the great virtue of volume one’s lengthy focus on Picasso’s Mediterranean origins is again made obvious: it has set us up perfectly for the strange, ecstatic, superstitious primitivism that underpins his cosmology.

    The marriage was never going to work. Its unravelling is dealt with in Richardson’s usual intense chronological detail but, unusually for him, it does not leave you feeling you know Olga that much better. The unveiling of a cache of family photographs I have never seen before allows her to emerge more fully as a physical presence – paper-thin, nervous, elegant – but her character remains invisible. Either the information simply isn’t out there, or Richardson cannot grasp her.

    What is missing is that sense of waspish encapsulation that elsewhere in this tome brings to life a fabulous assortment of spear-carriers and scoundrels. Thus we learn that the artists Delaunay and Gleizes, whom I had always assumed to be decent players on the French art scene, are booted brutally into touch as “a couple of draft-dodging Parisian modernists who lived off their wives and shared an envious hatred of Picasso”. You don’t see that in the auction catalogues. Turning to the ambitious art movement with which the progressive artists of Barcelona were hoping to change their century, Richardson spits happily that “noucentisme was far too timid and passé too live up to its portentous name”.

    Poor Cocteau – who “was not one to allow previous convictions to stand in the way of self-promotion” – is given a relentless and hilarious going-over. But nothing as rude or as tangible emerges about Olga. Picasso and she had a son in 1921, the ill-fated Paolo, and perhaps some extra sensitivity to the feelings of the surviving descendants has stayed Richardson’s hand because you definitely feel as if the Marquis de Sade has become a diplomat.

    The other chief reason for awaiting this third volume is the arrival here of the blonde, bouncy, blue-eyed, over-young and outrageously sexy Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom Picasso is supposed to have picked up as a schoolgirl outside the Galeries Lafayette, and who is traditionally seen as an antidote to Olga. Having done more than anyone else to publicise Dora Maar’s perfect quip that every time Picasso changed his women he changed his style, Richardson has long ago ceased repeating it himself, as if embarrassed by his own insight. But in shorthand terms at least it remains startlingly true. The eruption of love-drenched imagery that Marie-Thérèse inspires, sculptures as well as paintings, adds up to one of the sexiest confessions in the whole of art. Yet Richardson seems to respond to it dutifully rather than vividly. It’s as if this great authority on the sacred fires that burn inside Picasso is at home in storms but not in sunbursts.

    The most obvious piece of revisionism that takes place here is some attempted stamping on those who have previously claimed that Marie-Thérèse was 15 when Picasso met her, not, as she later insisted, 17. Richardson does his best to puff out his chest and sound as if he has conclusively proved that this is not so, but a careful reading of his text proves nothing of the kind.

    The volume ends with the incipient arrival of Maar, the dark mistress of whom Richardson himself seems naturally fondest, and whom he also knew. Great things lie ahead, therefore. As for this volume, it is no match for the first in excitement or raw perspicacity, but the latest instalment of the finest artistic biography ever written keeps up most of the good work.

    The never-ending story

    John Richardson has already spent a staggering 25 years on his Picasso. Given that he is now 83, and is having monthly injections in his eyes to help him see, it seems unlikely he will finish the project. Who will take it on he can’t yet say, but admits that one person, presumably awed by the commitment needed, has already turned him down.